Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

The 1960 Rome Olympics: an Itinerary

The 1960 Olympic games opened on August 25, 1960.  On the 53rd anniversary of the occasion, we re-publish a post from 2010. 

A new expanded itinerary of Foro Italico and the area across the Tevere from it, Flaminio, is now one of 4 walks in the new guide: Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Foro Italico and Flaminio, Modern Rome features three other walks: the 20th-century "garden" suburb of Garbatella, the Fascist-designed suburb of EUR; and a stairways walk in classic Trastevere.  This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores,  and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

As readers of an earlier post on Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila will know, Rome was the site of the summer Olympics fifty years ago, in 1960, when 8,000 athletes from around the world were exposed to the charms of the Eternal City and, less happily, to its sultry August weather. By all accounts the games were an organizational success; even the Germans were impressed.

Like all events of this scope, Rome's Olympics left behind a significant architectural heritage, much of it built for the games, though some events utilized facilities built under Fascism or dating to ancient Rome. Bikila's record-breaking, barefoot race began at the foot of Michelangelo's Campidoglio steps and finished after dark, under the illuminated Arch of Constantine. Rowing events took place not on the roiling Tevere, but on Lago Albano, the volcanic gem in the nearby Alban Hills (we recommend the long path around the lake shore). Some boxing matches and the basketball finals, where Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, and Oscar Robertson worked their still-amateur magic, were held in the Palazzo dello Sport, the Pier Luigi Nervi masterpiece built for the games and located in the Fascist-built EUR complex south of the city center. Not far from the Coliseum, the 4th-century Basilica di Massenzio was transformed into a three-mat wrestling facility (the recent photo at left shows the Bascilica being used for a high-profile series of lectures by famous authors). The Cold War politics of the games were played out here and there, most notably, perhaps, at Scoglio di Frisio (below right),
a restaurant founded in 1928 and (still) located at via Merulana 56, where US sprinter David Sime dined awkwardly with Soviet broad jump specialist Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, in a meeting the CIA hoped would lead to Ter-Ovanesyan's defection to the West. It did not.

For the most part, however, the center of the 1960 games was Flaminio, a relatively undeveloped zone at the city's northern edge, about two miles beyond the gate at Piazza del Popolo, straddling the Tevere. To begin your journey into Rome's Olympic past, take Tram #2 from the piazza just to the north of Piazza del Popolo. Get off at Piazza Apollodoro. Looking to your left, the first building you'll see is Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazetto dello Sport, a graceful concrete delight, embracing the curvilinear modernism that was the era's best contribution to architectural history. It was built in 1957/58 (prefabricated, and assembled in 40 days) for the Rome Olympics. The dome is of concrete, and it's supported by concrete flying buttresses, which allow for natural to penetrate the interior all around the building. The basketball team played some of its games in it.

The building was immediately recognized as an outstanding work; in 1962, while traveling on a Stanford foreign campus program, the authors of this blog found themselves
seated inside the the structure, listening to a lecture on its aesthetic virtues. Avery Brundage, the hard-wired head of the International Olympic Committee, compared Nervi's structures to the works of "Bernini and Michelangelo, and the momuments left by Hadrian, Trajan, and other Caesars."

Immediately to the north and east of the the Palazetto, and occupying many acres, is the Villaggio Olimpico (Olympic Village), which housed the athletes that competed in the games (it's now simply a housing project). As you walk through the enormous complex, you'll notice that most of the streets are named after countries: via Unione Sovietica, via Portogallo, via India, and so on. Then, as now, the area was divided, and one might say rather inelegantly, by an elevated highway: Corso Francia. A shame? Perhaps, but when it was designed and built (1958-60), the roadway was elevated, and placed on single pilasters, precisely to avoid its functioning as a great barrier with the Olympic Village. Elevated roadways were all the rage in this period, both for aesthetic reasons and because highway engineers believed they were magical solutions to traffic problems. Remarkably, the architects in this case were Antonio Nervi and Pier Luigi Nervi. In retrospect, the project was done about as well as it could have been. Think of it as the most artistic viaduct you've ever seen.

The architects of the viaduct surely could not have anticipated one of its uses. At the games, the highway served as a natural divider between the women athletes, housed on its west side, and the men, housed on the east. Everyone, it seems--it was an era outstanding for its prudery--was concerned that the boys would get into the girls' rooms, and so everything was gated, fenced, and guarded. Despite the precautions, Italian men found binoculars and telephoto lenses, parked their cars on the Corso, and enjoyed the view.

The buildings within the Village were designed by a team of distinguished architects that included Adalberto Libera, one of Fascism's best and most prominent architects (in a December 3, 2009 post, we offered Libera's via Marmorata post office as one of Rome's 20th-century architectural treasures). The Village buildings, especially in their current scruffy state, are not at that level, but they do have some interesting qualities.
They vary in number of stories and in surface treatments. But all are in a modernist vocabulary common to the 1950s and early 1960s. Some of the buildings display their original pastel colors. Some are topped by impressive round constructions--ventilation systems, perhaps--that emphasize the rationalist, geometric character of the buildings. Most if not all of the buildings are raised one story above ground, probably to give the Village a greater sense of integration and community and to prevent the buildings from becoming barriers to communication between the different nationalities encamped there. The great American decathlon athlete, Rafer Johnson, was among those who found another benefit; on a Sunday before his event, he was seen relaxing in a lounge chair in the cool air under one of the structures, listening to jazz on a portable radio while clearing his mind for the rigors of competition. Besides the dormitories, the Village had shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, a bank, recreation rooms, a cafeteria (maybe more than one), an outdoor movie theater, and a dance floor, crowded every evening. As you travel the Village, you may find some compelling statues (see photo) that don't seem to fit the period. You're right. They are of 1911 vintage, and were moved to their current locations when an older stadium was demolished.

Among the self-made celebrities at the Olympic Village was a young Cassius Clay.
But Clay was not yet famous. The gold medal he would win in Rome would be his springboard to success. Even so, Clay made a reputation in the Village and elsewhere, "always preaching," "always talking," as an American diver put it. In the photo at right, taken in the Village, he's in the center, with two other American boxers who won gold medals. In his delightful book on the Rome Olympics, Rome 1960, David Maraniss tells the story of a naive and thirsty Clay, drinking from the water fountain in his suite, unaware that it was a bidet.

There are more stories to be told. But it is time to leave the Olympic Village. Our next stop is across the river. To get there, find your way back to the Palazetto dello Sport. From its northerly side, cross via Flaminia through Piazza dei Carracci (you'll find a nice cafe and a comfortable wine bar in the piazza), down via Massaccio, via Poletti, and via Brunelleschi (in the US they would be the same street), and across the Tevere on Ponte Duca d'Aosta.

There, in front of you, you'll see a white marble obelisk, or you won't because it's probably still covered for refurbishing. The words "Mussolini Dux," inscribed into it, were in 1960 an embarassing reminder of the Italy's infatuation with the Duce, and some were inclined to tear the thing down. It remained. Beyond the obelisk, there isn't much that isn't straight out of Fascism, and it was all there for the games. Taking care to avoid future Olympians practicing on their skateboards, continue up the viale del Foro Italico, replete with reminders of Fascist imperial adventures. At the end, move through the piazzale to the Stadio di Marmi beyond, rimmed by 60 marble (marmo) statutes inspired by Fascist ideals of youth, strength and beauty. Some field hockey matches were held here, and the Stadio was also used by track and field athletes as they warmed up or just tried to stay relaxed while awaiting their events at the big stadium beyond.

You can't miss the Stadio Olimpico, just to the west. It was there that the elegant and popular sprinter Wilma Rudolph would win gold at 100 and 200 meters. It was there that Livio Berutti (200 meters), Peter Snell (800 meters), Herb Elliott (1500 meters), Lee Calhoun (high hurdles), Ralph Boston (broad jump), and Al Oerter (discus) won gold (if you're over 60, you'll know some of these names). Rafer Johnson won gold in the decathlon there, too, but it may be of more significance that during the opening ceremonies for the games, Johnson entered Stadio Olimpico as the first black athlete to represent his team--and the United States--by carrying the American flag.

As we explain in Rome the Second Time, the Stadio Olimpico that you see here, while visually interesting, isn't what was there in 1960, though the site is the same. The original stadium was built in the 1930s, under Fascism. In order to prevent the stadium from obscuring the view of Monte Mario, much of the seating was below ground level. The stadium was modified for the Olympic games and again more recently, when the Monte Mario issue was eclipsed by other needs. A photo of the opening ceremonies, featuring Johnson carrying the flag, shows that whatever modifications were made to the stadium for the games, the recast structure did not yet obscure the mountain.

That's enough for one day. But we can't resist recommending one more site, very close by: the main pool in the Foro Italico. It's in one of those red buildings along the Tevere (the side you're on), and you should be able to walk in and have a look at the fetching 1930s mosaics by Gino Severini, Angelo Canevari, and other great artists (see our July 19, 2009 blog).



kaylee said...

I stayed in Rome last month, in a flat I had booked through a website that has many holiday apartments in Rome . It was very near the Stadio olimpico and from the balcony I enjoyed a great view on Monte Mario!

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

We're jealous. We hope you had a chance to have a bite to eat at the restaurant at the summit of Monte Mario, with its splendid view of, among other things, your apartment. The 200 members of the German press corps ate there in 1960.